Controversy is raging in France over a TV broadcast featuring recorded conversations between Toulouse serial killer Mohammed Merah and police negotiators in the hours leading up to the declared al-Qaeda member’s March 22 death. The prime-time airing of the audio excepts July 8 generated outrage from families of Merah’s seven shooting victims, revulsion among a wide segment of the public, and an official investigation by authorities into the suspected criminal leaking of the recordings.
Yet despite loud denunciation of the move as indecent and sensationalist, officials at channel TF1 defended the broadcast as legitimate in their effort to bring the public important news and information. They said the recordings established Merah’s extremist convictions and ties, and his determination to confront police to the end. But while some TF1 officials stressed the channel had carefully edited out all of Merah’s discussion of the actual murders, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls retorted that the station had “taken no precaution to respect the families of victims.”The uproar arose after TF1 airing the recordings during its Sunday current affairs program, Sept à Huit—which, like the channel itself, has seen its long-running status atop French ratings slide in recent months. The segment featured clips from exchanges between Merah and negotiators trying to convince the 23-year old extremist to surrender to police forces who had surrounded his Toulouse apartment. As the sound bytes indicate, Merah instead defiantly held out for what became a 32-hour siege that ended when police shot and killed him as they stormed his building.
“I know that there’s a chance you could kill me, that’s a risk I’m taking,” Merah was heard saying in one section. “So there we are—understand you’re up against a man who is not afraid of death. I love death the way you love your life.”
Other portions aired found Merah describing his radical convictions, meetings with and training by what he described as al-Qaeda groups in Pakistan, and his actions in preparing and carrying out the spree of shootings in March that killed three soldiers, three young Jewish children, and their rabbi teacher.
TF1’s decision to broadcast extracts of the reportedly 4.5 hour-long recording sparked objections for a variety of reasons. Families of Merah’s victims said they were shocked by what they felt was TF1 boosting its own ratings through the words of a killer who had brought them so much grief. They also expressed anger at TF1 having not at least warned them or their lawyers that the recordings were to be made public. French audiovisual regulators shared that dismay.
“It is not acceptable to mock the families’ suffering in this way,” Michel Boyon, president of France’s Superior Audiovisual Council (CSA) told Europe 1 radio Monday. On Tuesday, the CSA convoked officials from both TF1 and two other news channels that re-aired the recordings to discuss the case, and examine possible sanctions.
Harsh attention came from other venues as well. French judicial officials have opened an inquiry into the leak as a probable legal offense. The reason: like all open criminal cases under scrutiny by investigating magistrates, the Merah inquiry requires all people involved to keep its details secret as a hedge against speculation that could negatively influence the collection of hard, objective facts. Judges will now look to see if the leak violated that secrecy—and just as importantly, why.
Interest in that motive will be great given other elements of the Merah case. Even before Merah was killed by police, evidence about his background, movements, and embrace of extremist Islam had surfaced to suggest French intelligence services should have identified the 23 year-old as a serious security risk before he went into deadly action. Instead he was apparently written off as a flake by intelligence handlers who Merah alternatively charmed and manipulated. Investigators will therefore look to see if the motivation behind the leak of Merah’s recordings might have been to mitigate perceptions of intelligence failure by demonstrating just how clever, scheming, and ultimately determined an extremist he was.
Justice officials will also seek to thwart future leaks in the Merah case. Merah filmed his killing sprees with a chest-mounted video camera, and managed to send a copy of those videos to the Paris bureau of al-Jazeera before the police siege of his apartment began. Though al-Jazeera elected to hand that footage to police rather than broadcast it, fears are now high that anyone else obtaining the video might not hesitate to air it now that TF1 has set a precedent with its audio scoop.
“We are not going to wait for the video of the crimes to appear on the Internet,” Mehana Mouhou, a lawyer representing the parents of one of Merah’s victims, told the Associated Press. “The family is outraged, because these murders are not a show, and the documents are part of judicial proceedings. The prosecutor must stop this.”
That may be difficult now that the genie is out of the bottle. Despite the CSA’s summoning of TF1 and other French TV channels that aired the Merah recordings for possible punishment, most national media have since run the extremist’s comments in their subsequent reporting. The daily Libération even obtained a transcript of the entire recording, and gave readers additional quotes from it as part of its front page coverage Tuesday. That suggests that despite the negative public and political reaction to TF1’s repor, the fact it continues generating headlines at home and abroad means future Merah scoops may prove too tantalizing to let ethical concerns get in the way.